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EDUCATION & ECONOMY: Pittsburgh mayor discusses lessons W.Va. can learn from the Steel City

The first in a three-part series

By ANDREA LANNOM

The Register-Herald

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — Speaking to West Virginia legislators at an education and economic forum in Charleston on Thursday, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said there are a few lessons West Virginia could learn from his city’s resurgence, but there will not be a silver bullet to resolving issues with the state’s economy.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto

But he did say that investing in people, creating a talent pipeline and forming private-public partnerships were key in his city’s success story.

Peduto said he watched Pittsburgh die in the 1980s when he saw mills closing and people leaving. In January 1983, Pittsburgh’s regional economy bottomed out with unemployment in Allegheny County hitting 13.9 percent and the rest of the Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area recording an unemployment rate of 17.1 percent.

The situation was so dire, Peduto said he never thought he would see the city thrive. Entire neighborhoods, he said, had lost 80 percent of their residents

“It is remarkable to think I’m living in a booming city,” Peduto said Thursday. “I thought for my lifetime, I would always wonder what it would be like when all the storefronts are open and our neighborhoods didn’t have many vacant properties.”

Peduto, who served for 19 years on Pittsburgh City Council before being elected mayor in 2013, said it wasn’t one solution that changed the city. He said it was an investment in hundreds of different pieces of the economic puzzle including medicine, higher education, tourism, corporate headquarters and technology.

The main theme, he said, is investing in people and ideas.

“Each one of them was an investment in a person and an idea,” he said. “You can flood a city, burn it to the ground, you can rip the economic heart of a city, but if you invest in people, the city will come back. It’s the same with a state. You can look and see different ways to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow and find people on the ground floor to make that happen. You can see the state come back, too.”

Peduto said public-private partnerships have helped Pittsburgh thrive.

“Seeds that had been planted in the 1980s started to take root,” he said.”Industry started growing. All of that work that had been started back during the 1980s when we were still having the discussion of how we would reopen the mills and put together strategies on how to do it, we were swimming against the tide of global change.

“There were those who saw a different path,” Peduto said. “Our future doesn’t have to be our past. We can be proud of who we are and take a different course. Now, for the first time, I’m watching my city grow. I’m seeing young people moving in instead of trying to retain them.”

He talked about a few different programs including a partnership to retrain former incarcerated adults to work in the construction industry where he said 90 percent of those who completed the program end up finding careers.

He also mentioned the formation of Pennsylvania’s BlueGreen Alliance, which has a local membership in labor, environment and community organizations. According to the alliance’s website, it promotes issues including clean energy and energy efficiency.

He said partnerships and creating a talent pipeline are important to success.

“The secret sauce is partnerships,” he said. “No one can do it alone, not government, not nonprofits, not corporations. You have to figure out where the jobs are by talking to companies and then create that talent pipeline.”

He also mentioned what he called “inclusive growth,” which he said is the goal of figuring out how to help residents as a whole instead of focusing on a particular group. He said the state has to provide a vision of where people are going in the future and built it for all.

“One thing that doesn’t get talked about is the similarities of those who feel left out,” Peduto said. “The fact of the matter is that a family in Beckley, West Virginia, who sees robot cars driving through the neighborhood but their factory closed and now they’re working at Denny’s or a single mom in the city of Pittsburgh who sees new apartment buildings being built that she will never be able to afford to live in — they both feel like their voices aren’t being heard. They have a heck of a lot of commonalities more than differences.”

He said part of the proposal to land Amazon HQ2 in Pittsburgh includes West Virginia.

“Amazon wants to see that we have regional workforce training,” he said. “You can use each other’s strengths and create opportunities for families in Beckley and for that single mom at home in the city.”

He said ultimately what he sees as the biggest factor in growth is investing in people and ideas and creating a talent pipeline.

“I think what’s important to understand what happened in the 1980s,” he said. “We had an investment in people. Ideas were created and people were coming up with new ideas that were able to start to take seed and stay in Pittsburgh. It was not a big tax break we gave corporations. When Uber or Google came, they didn’t ask for special tax breaks. They asked if we had talent we could provide them. They wanted that talent pipeline.”

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